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Son describes father struggling in sea before drowning during coasteering event

Undated handout image issued by Dorset Coroner's Office of Hedbury Quarry. Iain Farrell, from Dorney, Buckinghamshire, died while taking part in an activity run by Land & Wave, which involves climbing and swimming around a rocky part of a coast, at Hedbury Quarry, near Swanage in Dorset, in May 2019. Issue date: Wednesday September 20, 2023.
Ben Mitchell, PA

The son of a 49-year-old electrician has described watching his father struggling during a coasteering activity day before he was swept back into the water and drowned.

Iain Farrell, from Dorney, Buckinghamshire, died while taking part in the activity run by Land & Wave, which involves climbing and swimming around a rocky part of a coast, at Hedbury Quarry, near Swanage in Dorset, in May 2019.

The father-of-two was pulled unconscious from the sea and the rest of the group had to be recovered from the water by the Coastguard and RNLI during the incident.

His son, Sean Farrell, who was 15 at the time, said in a statement read to the Bournemouth inquest that his father had brought him and his younger brother, Oliver, to Dorset for a camping weekend including the coasteering activity.

He said: “It was something we hadn’t done before and it was going to be a new experience for the three of us.”

He added: “My father was the best father possible, he was loving and did the best for me and my brother Oliver and always tried to help.

“We did quite a lot with him, camping in the van and tented campsites, bowling, bushcraft and walking in the wood.”

RNLI stock
Archive picture of an RNLI lifeboat off the coast of Swanage in Dorset (Steve Parsons/PA)

He said that before the event, they ate a pizza in a pub and his father had a beer.

Sean said that during a safety briefing, his father told the guide, Charles Ridley, that he had limited swimming ability.

He said: “Dad said ‘I can’t swim but I can bob’, Charles made a joke and said ‘Hi Bob’.”

He said that his father was not a “strong swimmer” but could do “one or two lengths” of a swimming pool.

Sean said that when the activity started, his father was last of the group to jump in the water.

He said: “Daddy was at the back of the line and was lagging a bit, I asked him several times if he was OK as he really looked like he was struggling.

“He said he was fine and to leave him alone.”

He said that Mr Ridley swam over to him and talked to him and added: “They both started to swim towards the rocks, I could see daddy was getting out of breath and was struggling to swim.

“I could hear him breathing heavily and he was paddling with his arms.”

He said that he could see Mr Ridley still talking to his father and added: “At this point the two of them were by the rocks but still in the water and he attempted to climb the rock face two or three times but slipped back into the water.”

He said Mr Ridley shouted towards his father and threw a rope to him.

He said: “Charles did manage to get Dad on to a rock but the waves were crashing against a cliff and Daddy fell back in and was not responding.

“I felt so helpless and kept thinking that if I had been with him I might have been able to help.”

He said his brother, Oliver, who was 13 at the time, was getting really worried.

He said: “The waves were pushing us back and we had to fight against them, the sea was rough and incredibly strong, one in five waves was going over our heads.

“There was no obvious way out of the sea but I really wanted to get out because I didn’t feel safe.

“I was getting very tired and could feel the cold through my wetsuit.”

He said the group called to some nearby climbers who alerted the emergency services and it took 45 minutes for his father to be rescued by helicopter and another 45 minutes for the rest of the group to be rescued by the RNLI.

He added: “Everyone was being very kind towards me and Oliver but I didn’t realise that my dad had died until the police arrived and the officer told us what had happened.”

His brother, Oliver, said in a statement: “My daddy was funny and relaxed.”

He explained he could not see much of the incident from the water because he had given his glasses to Mr Ridley to look after.

He said: “I was very cold and ready to give up. It was very draining and I was getting more and more tired.

“Eventually a lifeboat arrived and the crew took me and the rest of the group to safety, at that time I didn’t know where my dad was or what was happening and it wasn’t until the police arrived that I found out my Dad had died.”

The inquest previously heard that a post-mortem examination showed that Mr Farrell died of drowning.

Mr Ridley told the inquest that the sea conditions became “progressively worse” during the session and he had taken the decision to cancel it immediately.

The qualified coasteering guide told the hearing that he did not remember the details of Mr Farrell explaining that he was not a strong swimmer prior to the session.

But he said that after the group had entered the water he swam over to him because he was not keeping up with the other participants.

He said Mr Farrell then said he was having difficulty breathing and he undid the top of his wetsuit in a bid to make him more comfortable.

Mr Ridley said Mr Farrell then told him that he was “really struggling” and he gave him a throw line and starting towing him back to the shore as his “progress had slowed significantly”.

He said that he then managed to get on to a ledge but Mr Farrell had difficulty standing up.

He added: “I was trying to help him stand up and that is the point we were both swept away by a wave.”

Mr Ridley said he then called out to Mr Farrell to reassure him he would get him out of the water but after throwing  the line to him twice, he saw Mr Farrell “roll over face into the water”.

He said: “I yanked the rope back towards me and dived straight in and swam across to him.

“I recall having to use every bit of my strength to get him out of the water.”

He described how he started CPR on Mr Farrell with the help of a climber who came to help until a rescue helicopter arrived and winched him inland.

Mr Farrell said he could not speculate whether a second guide would have “fundamentally” changed the day but they could have helped the other members of the group and helped raise the alarm more quickly.

He said the sea conditions had been “challenging” at the start but had got “progressively worse”.

He added: “I had already made the decision to cancel the session.”

He said that he had cancelled sessions two or three times in the past because of the sea conditions.

The hearing continues.


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